ATHENS -- Mike Thornton has been through the season opener three times now. He has had that tingling in his stomach three times.
But not like he finally will in two weeks.
This time, Thornton knows he will play. He might even start.
And the same goes for Ramik Wilson, Sterling Bailey, Sheldon Dawson and a host of defensive players who after a year on campus -- or much longer, in Thornton’s case -- are finally getting their chance this year.
“A lot of guys are hungry. Like me,” Thornton said. “We’ve been waiting in the wings, and our time has come. It’s our time to step up and take over and lead this defense. And that’s what we plan on doing.”
Georgia’s defense returns just four full-time starters from last season. For all the focus (deservedly so) on the newcomers and the established veterans, it might be these other players who dictate how good Georgia’s defense is in 2013.
Can sophomore Sheldon Dawson, who saw few snaps on defense last year, be a reliable starting cornerback?
Can junior Ramik Wilson be a dependable inside linebacker?
Is Thornton too undersized at nose tackle, or will his athleticism and experience be a plus?
Can sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons be the star on defense that many think he can be? (That is, after he returns from a one-game suspension.)
“Those are some of the names of the guys who really do need to step up. It’s their time to play, their time to shine for Georgia,” head coach Mark Richt said.
The group is not wholly inexperienced. Senior Connor Norman, who might get the nod at strong safety at Clemson, has started two games. Junior Ray Drew, who will get snaps on the defensive line, has 31 career tackles and a half-sack. Dawson saw enough time to get 13 tackles last year.
But there wasn’t much extra playing time to go around the past two years on a defense that was loaded with future NFL draft picks. Even the team’s four returning starters (end Garrison Smith, cornerback Damian Swann, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins) average out to a total of 12 career starts, equal to one regular season.
Still, the Bulldogs have to count on each of those to take the next step and be consistent playmakers. They also have to count on a bunch of newcomers, notably freshman safety Tray Matthews, to make an impact.
In between, they need the inexperienced veterans to perform. And there is little room for error.
“You can’t have a defense where 10 guys play well,” said sophomore outside linebacker James DeLoach, who recorded four tackles in 13 games last year.
There are high hopes for Harvey-Clemons, the former five-star recruit who probably would have played last year if there had not been two senior safeties. Now he will occupy both strong safety and the so-called star position, a hybrid safety-outside linebacker spot.
But the team is also depending on Dawson, who will be the top cornerback after Swann. If Swann has to come out of the game, then Dawson is suddenly in charge of covering the other team’s top receiver, something that may happen on some plays anyway.
“Sheldon’s a guy that was a really good special teams guy for us. He’s a fast guy. He’s physical. He’s got ball skills,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “So all of those things, they’re important to being a corner, and as a corner he’ll come up and tackle. That becomes a big thing, too, with quality running backs.”
One inside linebacker spot seems secure with Herrera. But the other one is currently occupied by Wilson, who has played sparingly his first two years and is getting pushed in the preseason by freshman Reggie Carter.
Wilson isn’t alone. DeLoach earned a first-team outside linebacker job in the spring, only to have Leonard Floyd of Dodge County have a standout preseason.
And on the defensive line, Thornton and Sterling Bailey, a third-year sophomore, finished spring as first-teamers. But they’re having to fight off other newcomers and redshirt freshmen.
The veterans understand the challenge.
“Our defense last year, we had 11 amazing guys,” Bailey said. “And the guys backing them up, we can play, too. So coming into this year, we’re gonna go out there and prove that there’s no let-off, that the guys backing up our defense last year, we can play too.”